The Impact of Vanuatu’s Cyclone: It’s Bad, Very Bad
People saw the storm approaching for days. Meteorologists watched as it grew stronger, circling near the 80 islands of Vanuatu like a wolf eyeing prey. Tongoa, one of the 22 islands impacted, is only a few miles across in any direction.
A few days before the cyclone hit, the village of Lumbukuti held a meeting on Tongoa. They counted 87 people, but only three buildings safe enough to wait out the storm. The strongest building was the church and they decided to reserve it for the most vulnerable.
Rinnie and Richard Davis’ family was asked to shelter at the nearby school, where Rinnie teaches. They were happy to help. Even after the storm, when it turned out the school wasn’t safe at all, Rinnie and Richard have no complaints. That’s just the kind of people they are.
Both school teachers, Rinnie teaches in Lumbukuti and Richard in a nearby village. Richard is also a Junior Chief. It’s a life much like the one they grew up with. Rinnie was raised in Lumbukuti; her father was the Village Chief and a teacher at the very same school.
Gathering to Face the Storm
When the day finally came, Rinnie and Richard walked with their kids to Rinnie’s classroom. There was Annalynn, 12, their oldest and mommy’s helper. Elizabeth and Annon, the twins, aged 9. Frayline, 5, the shy one. And Abed, the baby.
At first, the sky darkened. Then the rain began. And then came the wind.
It is the wind, at 150 miles per hour, that no one can forget. “What did it sound like?” I asked again and again on Tongoa. Then I would see a faraway gaze, the struggle to find words.
“Like breaking,” one child told me. “Like a monster,” one girl said.
No One Wants to Almost Die
Rinnie told me that when Cyclone Uma pushed through in ’87, it took the roof off the school. Then there was the volcano in 2003, the earthquake of 2009.
“So you’ve rebuilt before!” I said, by way of silver linings.
Rinnie pushed her chin forward, turned a cheek to me and sighed. I heard the hurt in her voice in an instant.
“Well, yes,” she said, carefully. “But…” her voice trailed off.
Rinnie is too nice to say what she should have.
No one wants to almost die. No one wants to rebuild a school a dozen times. No one wants to hold onto to their children because the wind might take them away.
No one gets used to it. No one. Not ever.
6 Hours of Horror
An hour into this storm, the wind whipped the metal roof from the school’s thick wooden roofing beams. Once the roof went, the storm came inside. The beams collapsed. Then everything took flight.
Books, chairs, glass and roofing swirled and smashed from wall to wall, each item a dagger that could kill in an instant. The family crawled under a single desk, where only their heads and torsos would fit. They held onto the desk like a shield. The kids did not stop screaming.
As the family huddled together, they felt the cement wall behind them sway and buckle, knowing that if the wall came down, they would die. In the wind and darkness, in torrential rain, they held onto each other under the desk for more than 6 hours.
When the storm subsided, they walked out alive, but terrified. The trees were bare. The school was gone. The rich, green life they knew before was something in the past, a memory Abed and Frayline and the twins will soon forget.
Where Is the Aid?
No one died on Tongoa because no one got left behind. Everyone was looked after by village chiefs, pastors and school teachers like Richard and Rinnie. Neighbors grabbed neighbors. If a cyclone hit today, they’d have nowhere to hide.
Reports from the shelter “cluster,” an interagency working group, state that only 8,000 tarps in total have been distributed in Vanuatu. Although it’s been almost three weeks since the cyclone, only 50% of families who need a tarp now have one.
But tarps won’t meet the real shelter and water needs of the islands. People on Tongoa have run out of emergency water supplies and desperately need roofs on their houses with gutters, so they can collect rainwater before the dry season starts next month.
There are boats, planes and helicopters ready to go. In the capital city Port Vila, the local hardware stores are stocked and have been for weeks. Vanuatu is a quick, cheap plane ride from Australia and New Zealand. A flight from the capital to Tongoa can be chartered for $700.
Ask most aid people what the problem is and they are quick to blame the government. But in fact, none of the big international groups have even tried to purchase lumber, tin for roofs or piping for gutters. The cargo ship I took to Tongoa was mostly empty.
Surveying the Wreckage
This week, the government of Vanuatu requested that schools restart classes. To this, Rinnie and Richard both scoff, albeit gently, which is their way.
As we walked together through Lumbukuti, we grew silent in the wreckage. The soft trees, the vulnerable ones, went first. Mango trees and bananas, mandarin trees and papaya. We stopped to watch the sun set on brown hills.
“What do you think of the situation of Tongoa?” Richard asked.
“It’s bad,” I said. “But what do you think?”
“It’s very bad,” he told me.
If Richard and Rinnie seem kind and soft spoken, it isn’t because they are accustomed to harsh conditions, just the opposite. They are teachers and parents, first. They aren’t world weary or cynical. They aren’t angry people. Not yet.
To help the people of Lumbukuti, you can donate to the New Zealand Rotary Club, which has been working with them for many years. Select, “Disaster Relief” http://www.rnzwcs.org/donate.